Because Irish written records did not manifest until the 8th Century, we can be thankful to the Early Irish monks who captured the old legends and sagas through script, although using a Christain filter. It is difficult to know exactly when a society exchanges one religion for another as it takes time but we know during the 6th Century the Christain church had established it’s heirarchy and institution with Latin education and monasticisim spreading throughout the country in the 600’s. ‘Periginatio:Celtica II’, TM Charles-Edwards. The public worship of the Old Gods by high ranking individuals had come to an end by the 500’s but it seem to have continued, albeit marginilised, right up to the turn of the 8th Century. At this point in time, Druids ceased to appear in legal texts and it can be assumed that they disappeared from Irish society.
It is traditional in handbooks of mythology to begin witha family picture of the Old Gods, detailing their relationships, powers and attributes. However this is not the case for the Old Irish Gods. It can be argued that because everything we know about the Irish Deities comes from writings composed after the island’s conversion and maybe filtered through a Chritain lens. It is also important to bear in mind that their earliest appearances in the manuscripts has them divorced from religious activities. ‘Ireland and the Medieval World: AD 400-1000’, E Bhreathnach. In order to retrieve non-Christain manuscript information about the nature of the Divinities religiously revered by the pagan Irish, we have two tools at our disposal, archaeology and conclusions based on cross referencing with the related societies of Celtic Gaul and Britain. Because of its nature, archaeological evidence has a limited value on reconstructing belief systems and mythological narratives, but it does seemas least some Irish population groups erected wooden or stone images that have human characteristics related to the Old Gods. One such was found in the bog of Ralaghan in Co. Cavan. It is roughly 1 metre long and carved from a whole yew tree trunk. The hole gouged into the genital area may once have held a carved penis and the decorative style of the facial area is similar to that of the later La Téne culture. But it dates to the Bronze Age circa 1000 BCE. https://agsmaoineamh.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/ralaghan-man/ Many scholars would argue that this was before the arrival of any form of Celtic speech, so there is no guarantee of cultural continuity with the religious practises of over a 1000 years later. ‘Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures: Recent Irish Discoveries’, M Stanley. In saying this, similar sculptures have surfaced sparodically in Britain dating to the Iron Age which suggests that it may once have been more widespread, but we cannot tell for definite. ‘Rites of the Gods’, A Burl.
The same problem arises with the intrepretation of the stone sculpture “Tandragee Idol” which also dates to circa 1000BCE. https://www.historyireland.com/medieval-history-pre-1500/museum-eye-22/ It is a helmeted figure holding his left arm which could represent a warrior or a native deity such as Núada Argatlám (of the silver arm) who lost his arm at the first Battle of Moytura and had it replaced with a silver one. The great saga of the Tuatha Dé was written just under 2000 years later after the figure was sculpted so the link to Núada is considered a possibility. ‘Contributions to an Intrepretation of Several Stone Images in the British Isles’, E Ettlinger.
There are also hints that rivers, bogs and other bodies of water such as lakes were important in the old Irish religious beliefs, but Iron Age deposits are rarer in Ireland than in Britain but we can boast of having one of the most spectacular finds. The Broighter Hoard was discovered close to Lough Foyle in county Derry. http://irisharchaeology.ie/2012/09/the-broighter-hoard/ These items are thought to have been crafted and deposited in 1BCE. Depositing offerings such as these suggest a belief in supernatural beings associated with water. Looking at later literature, scholars have speculated that the Hoard was a ritual offering to the sea God Manannán, because Old Irish texts associate Lough Foyle with stories of encounters between Brán son of Febal and the God Himself. Stating this, not all conclusions drawn between artifacts and legend are wrong. We must examine the evidence closely with caution and it is too easy to build structures on sifting sands.
Because archaeological evidence emerges as open to intrepretation, it can be used to outline the most important aspects of how pre-Christain Ireland regarded the Old Gods. For a time, there were a great number of these, related to certain places, clan and to the natural world. A prime example is an Bíle or Defhid (the god-tree) which was sometimes used to mean a specific tree venerated by the inhabitants of a certain area (and continued evolutionary as a marker of a families territory through Brehon Law and to date as a tree in a churchyard). ‘Sacred Trees of Ireland’, C Zuccheilli.http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/08/sacred-trees-in-early-ireland/ It is unclear that the Old Ones were to either dwell within, under or use these sites as a portal between both worlds, but it can be imagined that of having uses for gifts which the old Irish would have offered up to them. This idea can be rounded by comparison with Gaul and Britain, but one final note about the archaeological record should be considered. The centuries immediately before the Christain conversion point to a period of economic contraction, agricultural decline, and (knowing this country) some degree of political in-house struggle. From this, it is possible that the late Iron Age religious values and beliefs reflect this turbulence, which in turn points to that an immemorial Irish Celtic past may have changed with this.
If we look at British and Gaulish archaeology, written data is available mainly in the form of inscriptions and the Roman descriptions of Gaulish religious customs. Parallels can be drawn if we stick to the outlines. There seem to be three key features that are shared. Firstly, watercourses are regularly venerated with associations to goddess archetypes more so than god archetypes. ‘Celtic Goddesses’, M Green. (It is important to remember that Greco-Roman culture tended to have more male archetypes). Secondly, was the wide range of local variety, with a large number of named deities attested and had overlapping roles such as warrior, hunter, healer, tradesperson, etc. ‘Pagan Religions’, R Hutton. And lastly, neither Gaul or Britain provide us with evidence in the Greco-Roman sense which relates to the localism mentioned in the first key feature. But this still provides a puzzle. It is mentioned repeatedly in the Old Irish literature, that there is a loose family structure similar to that of a pantheon. For example, an Dagda (the Good God) is the central focus of this structure, as like his Roman counterpart Jupiter and the Greek Zeus, has several children and is quite fertile (he has had many sexual laisons in the Saga’s). There are a number of ways to solve this issue.
On one hand, Pagan Ireland may have developed a pantheon independantly while the Britons and Gauls may have not, although this seems unlikely considering the proximity. Ireland was, and remained so after the conversion, a decentralised, rural and politically fragmented society with a thinly spread population of limited mobility. This would suggest more that this is a situation unlikely to foster the development of a national family of Gods.
A second possibility, is the members of society that could move around, thought in terms of a core pantheon. This would mean those who maintained themselves with professional skills, the áes dána (people of skill) such as the bards, Law givers and more importantly, the druids being the religious elite. We do find this reflected on in later literature emphasising on archetypes associated with skill. People tied to the land would have more than likely focused more on local Divinities associated with fertility. It is possible that a similar situation obtained in Gaul, and this would explain the sharp contrast between Julius Caesar’s famous description of a micro-pantheon, for whom he used the Roman names of Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva, and the clear epigraphic evidence that Gaulish Deities numbered in the 100’s. We know that Caesar spoke with a Druid, and that he had a pressing need to understand the attitudes of the powerful in Gaulish society. His account of the gods of Gaul may reflect only on the beliefs of the learned, mobile elite. ‘Caesars Druids:An Ancient Priesthood’, M Aldhouse-Green. ‘Caesar’s Perception of Gallic Social Structures’, B Arnold & D Blair-Dunham.
A third possibility is the whole concept of a family of Gods under a patriarchial figure may have been adopted by the Irish as a result of contact with Roman culture, although this may have happened either before or after the conversion. Pagan Ireland was exposed to a strong influence of Roman Britain culture and the idea of a pantheon might have been adopted in imitation of the culture of the neighbouring island, as was the custom of commerating the dead with inscriptions on stone. ‘The Romanisation Of Ireland in the 5th Century’, L Laing.
Alternatively the concept of a pantheon may never have been a part of true Irish Paganism at any stage before the conversion. The concept may have been imported after the island fully converted to the Christian religion, as the learned classes of Irish society developed familiarity with latin literature, especially Virgil’s mythological epic, the Aeneid. ‘Roman Ireland’, V Di Martino.
All the above options are possible, but at the present state of our knowledge, it is difficult to gauge which is more likely.
Seán Ó Tuama.